NASA’S CLAIMS WARP BUBBLE EXPERIMENT SUCCESS
If you're a regular reader here, you may recall that from time to time I've mentioned, or even blogged about, both NASA's and DARPA's goal to have the USA be "warp capable" by the end of the century. NASA of course stands for Never A Straight Answer, and is also sometimes known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and DARPA is, of course, The Diabolically Apocalyptic Research Projects Agency (as one of our regular readers J.B. named it) also known as The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Whatever one chooses to call these agencies, whether our official names here on this site, or their less helpful and descriptive government titles, they both share this publicly stated goal of having the USA be "warp capable," and by "warp capable" - yes - they do mean space warps, as in Star Trek "ahead warp factor five" sorts of stuff, faster-than-light travel, except it really is not travel or moving from one place to another. It's more like bending space-time while you stay still.
A simple illustration might make this clearer. Imagine suspending a string between your two hands, and on the string, there's an ant. Let the ant's walking along the string represent the velocity of light. It will take a certain amount of time for the ant to travel along the string between your hands, because the ant can't travel any faster. Now, bring your hands together, so that the ends of the string actually touch the same spot. Now the ant doesn't have to travel the string at all; it just is "there". Then, move your hands back to the original position while the ant stays in position, but on the other hand it was trying to get to. That's a "space warp". By parity of reasoning, Star Trek's "warp factors" are not measures of "speed" in any conventional sense, but rather of how much distance or space can be "warped" at a given time. Taking the velocity of light as the speed limit, the one warp factor might be how far light can travel in a year, two warp factors might be how far it can travel in two years, and so on. Needless to say, all this business about the velocity of light as a maximum speed limit, and of "bending" or "warping" space-time, falls out of Einstein's two relativity theories.
In any case, NASA placed the warp drive project under the direction of Dr. Harold "Sonny" White, who now is claiming to have created a very tiny space warp in experiments:
Now, if the article were really about the headline, we'd have something truly explosive, for imagine: if such a "tiny warp" had been created, it would be one of those history-changing events, on a par with the voyages or exploration or the Moon landings, only much much more significant, for it would mean (1) such warps are real and (2) man is capable of making them, and hence theoretically capable of traveling to the stars, not in several years, but over a much shorter time period. Space warps would mean the end of rocketry as surely as steam engines meant the end of the age of sails for ocean going ships.
But this is not what the article says, and in fact, both the article (and articles disputing White's claims, as we shall see) are getting the history rather garbled. (For White's actual paper, see Worldline numerics applied to custom Casimir geometry generates unanticipated intersection with Alcubierre warp metric). In fact, it is with the history - and the current rather garbled dispute - that we are concerned. The article "DARPA and NASA Scientists Accidentally Create Warp Bubble for Interstellar Travel" states the following:
Harold “Sonny” White, a NASA researcher at the Eagleworks Laboratory in Houston, Texas, published a research paper with his team in July about the “possible structure of the energy density present in a Casimir cavity.”
According to thereport, the Eagleworks team came across “a micro/nano-scale structure … that predicts negative energy density distribution that closely matches requirements for the Alcubierre metric.”
In other words, White and his colleagues accidentally created a microscopic experiment while researching how energy distributes around wavelengths — a theory developed by Dutch physicist Hendrik Casimir. The experiment resulted in enough theoretical energy to achieve “warp speed,” a concept theorized by Mexican mathematician and physicist Miguel Alcubierre.
In 1994, Alcubierre made waves in the physics community when he published his findings on the theoretical possibilities of “warping” interstellar space. He posited that it was possible to manipulate the fabric of space itself in order to achieve faster-than-light travel.
Alcubierre said it might be possible to expand the space behind a starship and contract space in front of it, thereby reducing the intervening gaps between planets and stars to very short distances. In visualization, the concept was compared to a surfer riding a wave — a metaphor often used to describe how a ship could travel the stars.
Alcubierre’s math, though reportedly sound, had some unresolved problems. Some of the theoretical energy requirements do not exist — or, at least, have not yet been discovered. However, the latest DARPA-funded research released by White and his team indicates that the energy requirements would be much less than initially believed.
But this is not entirely correct. It is true that Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre did publish his famous warp drive paper in 1994. It did send shock waves through the science community because it was the first time anyone had done the math and published it demonstrating space warps were possible. The excitement died down, however, when the same math indicated that it would require a mass-t0-energy conversion on the scale of the planet Jupiter to be possible. Mankind was obviously not going to the stars any time soon, at least, not by means of space warps.
At this juncture, along came Dr. White, who looked at Alcubierre's mathematics, and basically concluded that Alcubierre's mass-energy conversion scale was much too large, and that a warp would not require anywhere near a Jupiter-sized mass-energy conversion. It would be much less than that, so much so, in fact, that it lay within the realm of human feasibility. Notably, it was after White's revisitation of Alcubierre that both DARPA and NASA decided to announce the goal that they wanted the USA to be warp capable by the end of this century. Or to put that more bluntly, NASA's and DARPA's scientists and technicians, after reviewing White's mathematics, concluded that there was enough merit in them to pursue a practical warp drive research project.
Granted, DARPA has come up with some real clunkers for projects (remember the Reagan era hafnium isomer bomb?), but nonetheless, the implication remains: it concluded that White's ideas had some merit. Stop and let that sink in, for a moment.
Immediately what we're confronted with is that the idea that White and his team accidentally did anything is a bit absurd, because the whole point of the project is proof-of-concept. With that in mind, let us turn to the second article that maintains nothing whatsoever was found:
Now in the second article, the author, Ethan Slegel, who also authored a popular book on Star Trek technologies, zeroes in on the Casimir Effect after pointing out that Alcubierre's original paper talked about positive and negative energy as being a means of warping space:
Today, however, it’s recognized that what’s needed isn’t necessarily negative mass or negative energy; that was simply the way that Alcubierre recognized one could induce the needed “opposite type” of curvature to space from what normal mass or energy causes. However, there’s another possibility for this that stems from a realization that didn’t yet exist back in 1994, when Alcubierre first put his work forth: that the default amount of “energy” in space isn’t zero, but some positive, non-zero, finite value. It wasn’t until 1998 that the effects of this energy were first robustly seen, manifesting itself in the accelerated expansion of the Universe. We know this today as dark energy, and it’s a form of energy intrinsic to the fabric of space itself.
Now, keep that in mind: There’s a finite amount of energy to the fabric of space itself. In addition to that, there’s a famous calculation that was done back in the 1940s, in the early days of quantum field theory, by Hendrik Casimir, that has remarkable implications. Normally, the quantum fields that govern the Universe, including the electromagnetic field, exist everywhere in space; they’re intrinsic to it, and they cannot be removed. But if you set up certain boundary conditions — Casimir first envisioned two parallel, conducting plates as an example — certain modes of that field would be excluded; they had the wrong wavelength to fit between the plates.
As a result, the energy inherent to the space outside of the plates would be slightly greater than the energy inside the plates, causing them to attract. The effect wasn’t experimentally confirmed until almost 50 years after it was proposed, when Steve Lamoreaux successfully did it, and the Casimir effect has now been calculated and measured for many systems and many configurations. It may be possible, with the proper configuration, to use the Casimir effect in a controlled fashion to substitute for Alcubierre’s original idea of exotic matter that possessed some type of negative energy.
However, one must be careful — as stated earlier, it’s easy to fool yourself. The Casimir effect isn’t equivalent to a warp bubble. But in principle, it could be used to warp space in the negative fashion that would be needed to create one. (Boldface emphasis added)
Now we get to what White and his team actually did and accomplished, and what they are speculating it might mean:
The article, thankfully, published in the open access (but often dubious) European Physical Journal C, is publicly available to anyone wishing to download it. (Link here.) Using micron-scale electrical conductors in a variety of shapes, including pillars, plates, spheres and other cavities, teams of researchers were able to generate electric potentials (or changes in voltage) of a few hundred microvolts, completely in line with what previous experiments and theoretical predictions both indicate. That’s what the DARPA-funded project was for, and that’s what the experimental research surrounding this idea accomplished: in a custom Casimir cavity.
However, there’s an enormous difference between what teams working on Casimir cavities do experimentally and the numerical calculations performed in this paper. That’s right: This isn’t an experimental paper, but rather a theoretical paper, one with a suspiciously low number (zero) of theoretical physicists on it. The paper relies on the dynamic vacuum model — a model typically applicable to single atoms — to model the energy density throughout space that would be generated by this cavity. They then use another technique, worldline numerics, to assess how the vacuum changes in response to the custom Casimir cavity.
And then it gets shady. “Where’s my warp bubble?” They didn’t make one. In fact, they didn’t calculate one, either. All they did was show that the three-dimensional energy density generated by this cavity displayed some qualitative correlations with the energy density field required by the Alcubierre drive. They don’t match in a quantitative sense; they were not generated experimentally, but only calculated numerically; and most importantly, they are restricted to microscopic scales and extremely low energy densities. There’s a lot of speculation and conjecture, and all of it is unproven.
That isn’t to say this might not be an interesting idea that might someday pan out. But the most generous thing I can say about it is this: it isn’t fully baked. The most worrisome part, as a scientist familiar with Dr. White’s grandiose claims surrounding physics-violating engines in the past, is that he’s making new grand claims without adequate supporting evidence.
Now, boiling all that down, what Slegel is maintaining (accurately in my opinion), is that (1) Dr. White and his teams' paper does not claim to have made a small warp bubble, but rather (2) to have demonstrated a qualitative similarity between the geometry of the Casimir Effect and Alcubierre's warp drive energy requirements, or to put that into a perhaps more "scientific" jargon, the geometries of the two appear to be qualitatively scale invariant.
It's that geometrical resemblance, in other words, the apparent scale invariance, exhibited by the two pictures above which White reproduces in his paper which, in my opinion, fueled the theoretical speculations advanced in the remainder of the paper. He is, after all, a scientist trying to maintain funding for his work.
Slegel is entirely correct to be skeptical of the paper and his criticisms are trenchant and to the point.
I share - for the moment - his skepticism...
...and yet, there is that disturbing, and (no way around it) suggestive resemblance of the Casimir geometry, and Alcubierre's warp...
...and of course, there's one more consideration. DARPA, after all, is the sponsor of the experiment, as Dr. White acknowledges in the opening paragraph of his paper. The question to be asked is, of course, whether DARPA would allow the publication of the actual numbers of White's experiment, much less the actual mathematics of the theoretical part of the paper.
My guess is, probably not...
See you on the flip side...
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